Dr. Pragya Agarwal is the founder of thearttiffin.co.uk, a social enterprise encouraging creativity and creative confidence for mental health. Watch her TEDx talk on developing a creative habit here. Pragya is a mum of three girls, and runs a facebook group ‘Raising Feminists’
We asked Dr Agarwal how to encourage compassion in children and this is the brilliant advice she has given us.
Children have their own share of daily demands and when things don't go as smoothly or their daily routine is disrupted or things change, they can feel unsettled. We do not realise it but the instant availability and focus on material goods can affect children’s mental health too. The focus on material goods can impact a child’s sense of identity, and research has shown that this culture of consumption is particularly influential in shaping self-worth for 4-12 year olds. There is increasing evidence that the way we are bombarded with advertisements and the increased use of social media affects the integrity of the childhood structure, and causes physical, emotional and social deficits.
Therefore, it becomes imperative that we deliver a message of kindness and generosity to our children. Compassion means that we feel a strong desire to help someone else, or to put their needs before our own. It can mean saying a kind word, recognising when someone is upset and reaching out to them, and having a sense of empathy for another living being.
Here are five tips for encouraging compassion in children:
- Show them how
Model kindness, and cultivate a culture of compassion at home. It is crucial to start off by being kind to the children, treating them with respect and also being kind and loving towards other members of the family and pets. Show rather than tell. Engage them by having family traditions, where they can put a food item everyday in a box to be taken to the local soup kitchen and volunteer in the local animal and homeless shelters. Use kind words and gestures when dealing with strangers.
- Talk about feelings
Emotions can be complex for young children to talk about. It is important to help them learn to vocalise these feelings in a way that they feel empowered and confident. Talk about how you might have felt when they hugged you, or when they did a nice thing for their siblings. Talk about characters in books with them and how they might be feeling. Teach your children to read facial cues, and how to understand when someone is upset or sad. Making a feelings journal and playing a matching emotions game helps children visualise facial cues.
Creating stories and role playing is a good way of talking about kindness and empathy. Giving them scenarios where they could use compassion in real life can be fun too. There are many children’s books that have kindness as their main message. Using pictures to tell stories and express emotions is a powerful tool. Encourage children to use different colours and images to show how they are feeling without words.
- Encourage Kindness
Let your children help out around the house, and give them responsibilities appropriate to their age. A kindness challenge is a good way of fostering compassion. These could include donating a clothes and toys to charity, going to homeless shelters and helping out, helping a neighbour, or even helping a sibling with something they might be struggling with. Children can bake cookies and make pictures to take to the local old age home. Decorating an outdoor tree for animals and birds to feed from over the winter months is a lovely way of connecting with nature while also building empathy with all living beings around them.
- Write thank-you notes
With most of us now communicating by emails and online messaging, the art of handwritten notes is slowly dying out. It is important for our children to know the value of giving thanks and expressing gratitude for the gifts they receive on birthdays and festivals. Writing cards and notes is an explicit way of learning gratitude that even young children can get involved in. Try and let the children express their emotions and creativity through the pictures that they create. Rather than just saying thank you, help your child to write about how the present made them feel.
Compassion can be nurtured. Little things everyday can make such a difference. Children learn best when they feel a sense of ownership and, by helping them learn to self-regulate from a young age, they will be more in control of their emotions and feelings. We can teach our children to think of the less privileged members of the community and help those who might not have warm bed or hot food. Conscious kids are likely to be more resilient and have a healthier view and connection with the environment and people around them.
For more tips read my article on ‘Raising Socially Conscious Children’ in The Green Parent Magazine. You can also read more about the signs and symptoms of stress in our children and resources to support you through this on our website at thearttiffin.co.uk